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A Few Ways to Discourage Watching Opera on DVDs (2)

April, 2005

IF YOU READ the first article in this mini-series, you might recall one complaint. The liner notes about the opera on the DVD are either made illegible by thoughtless color combinations or are buried in the ROM feature of the disc that very few can bring up on their screens. Now let us consider what you actually hear and see on those DVDs and wonder if the whole thing is worth it.

When you listen to a studio recording of an opera on a CD, usually every word is quite clear (if the chorus is not placed too far from the microphones, as is often the case) and you might even appreciate the stereo separation, especially with earphones. The problem with presenting actual performances given before audiences is that very seldom is the miking sufficient to pick up sounds equally from all parts of the stage. I have run across very few operas on DVD in which there has not been an acoustic dead spot on the stage, a place where a singer’s voice suddenly sounds far away or is actually inaudible. And guaranteed, some long sequence is staged in that very spot. In this way on two sets in my collection, a trio in “Turandot” becomes a duet and Albrecht’s curse on the gold and the ring in “Das Rheingold” is a well-kept secret.

Is there no quality control among all the engineers who set up these microphones and the producers who must hear the discs before distributing them for sale?


There was a time that you went to the opera for not only an aural treat but also an ocular one. While some productions still give us sets we can enjoy even without any singers on stage, the “Eurotrash” (let the Director do whatever he wants as long as it is different) trend gives us a “Der Freischutz” in which the town consists of flat geometric shapes, a “Rheingold” (the same one referred to above) that takes place in the lobby of some sort of health resort or (more likely) sanitarium, a “Lulu” that takes place on a totally blank black stage with some eight-by-eights that now and then emerge from the backdrop to form steps leading to nowhere, and a “Salome” that takes place on a mostly bare black stage as the characters sing of all the opulence surrounding them.

I have said this so many times. Opera is drama. Granted the characters sing, accompanied by an invisible orchestra (an element we agree to admit into their reality), but they are still human beings in a universe in which people simply sing rather than speak. Beyond that, they must be recognizable human beings (not types, mind you) who live in recognizable human surroundings. Placing them in abstract settings is as counterproductive to true drama as placing them in settings that make nonsense of the time period in which the action is supposed to unfold. So a “Simon Boccanegra” set in any times but the Italian Renaissance makes as much dramatic sense as does as a “Trojans” in which the Greek soldiers are in modern military outfits with rifles while the Carthaginians are in vaguely classical robes (while Queen Dido has a modern CEO business outfit).

On top of all that breaking with dramatic reality, it is also quite boring to see production after production costumed in nondescript garments instead of the splendid ones that used to be the norm in all opera houses. After a beautiful start to one production of Dvorak’s supernatural opera “Rusalka,” the Spirit of the Lake enters dressed in a shabby suit. Talk about your letdown of expectations. In a production of Monteverdi’s “The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland,” the gods of Olympus are similarly dressed. In one recent production of Berg’s “Lulu,” taking place in a time when men would wear suits, all of the male characters are wearing identical suits—not very helpful to one unfamiliar with the work and trying to sort out who is who.

One production (not on DVD) of Verdi’s “Nabucco” had the population of Babylonia costumed as bees (a very clever, don’t you know, sledgehammer concept that the citizenry were just so many members of a hive). At least the audience had the common sense to stop the show with booing.

Now I know what is going to happen. I will get several letters saying that we cannot produce the same works in the same way decade after decade, and that all classics must be refreshed and reinterpreted — ideas with which I agree. But not at the expense of the abandonment of the human element, of believability, of eye-pleasing spectacle. Once, in protest Birgit Nilsson arrived at a rehearsal of a very dimly lit Wagner production of Von Karajan’s wearing a miner’s hat with flashlight. Perhaps we too could all shed some light on what opera is really about by letting those in charge know about the damage they are doing to those who want to appreciate and love opera but cannot, given the nonsense they find on videos today.

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